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The Drone Index: AVIC Wing Loong / Pterodactyl

March 15, 2016

Chinese Wing Loong MALE UAV front view

It was only in the last 10 years that China’s vast aerospace sector prioritized UAV development for surveillance and intelligence missions. Since 2015 the cascading results have been stupendous and a vibrant example is the MALE drone “family” called the Wing Loong or “Pterodactyl” manufactured by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).

The Wing Loong’s existence became public knowledge in 2012 when it was exhibited at the high profile Zhuhai Air Show. (Other media outlets claim its debut was in 2010.) The Wing Loong made another appearance during the PLA’s victory parade in 2015 as part of a lavish display of modern weapons and equipment. The Wing Loong 2 appeared soon after and in 2022 the Wing Loong 3 was displayed at Zhuhai again with a massive combat payload.

The prevailing impression of the original Wing Loong is a Sinicized Predator B. But its resemblance is actually closer to the Israeli Hermes 900. This isn’t surprising since the current template for medium altitude UAV design is based on the Israeli inventor Abraham Karem’s original concept that’s still being copied today. Bear in mind AVIC is the same firm that manufactures the J-10 multirole fighter; a delta wing with canards model based on an Israeli design. Examining AVIC’s recent past does show a long and understated amount of collaboration with partners in Israel, whose own firms have been doing business with China for decades now, and this relationship continues to this day.

Drone enthusiasts won’t find the Wing Loong too exotic. It retains a bulbous nose blister for housing its synthetic aperture radar and satellite tracking system. Underneath is a gimbal for its infrared camera and fire control system. Retractable tricycle landing gear is where it should be below an elongated fuselage made of a composite material like a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer. The Wing Loong reportedly carries a 440 pound payload of sensors and weapons.

Chinese Wing Loong IE Male UCAV 2022

The Wing Loong 1E at Air Show China 2022. Via Chinese state media.

To complete its look the Wing Loong has a V-tail, a three-blade propeller with an underlying engine intake, and tapered mid-wing copied from the Hermes 900. Both models diverge on details like wingspan. The Wing Loong’s measures 45 feet. The Hermes 900 is 49 ft. But another glaring similarity is the maximum takeoff weight. For the Hermes 900 it’s 2,600 pounds and likewise for the Wing Loong at a close 2,535 lbs.

The length of the fuselage is proof the Wing Loong is a hybridized UAV rather than a direct copy. Based on measurements published by AVIC the Wing Loong is 29.5 feet from tail section to nose. This is closer to the MQ-9 Reaper of the US Air Force and the MQ-1C Gray Eagle of the US Army.

AVIC’s product literature on the Wing Loong explains its deployment in companies of four aircraft along with a ground control station and logistics and payload sets. The Wing Loong’s capabilities are just as noteworthy. It manages an above average top speed of 280 km/h and a ceiling in the 24,600 ft range. Its endurance is in the 20 hour threshold common among MALE UAVs.

The specifications of the Wing Loong 2 were reportedly publicized during the China Aviation Expo 2015 in Beijing. This updated variant had a greater wingspan and a ceiling near 30,000 feet. An improved Wing Loong 1E also emerged this time with a specific combat role and four hardpoints that carry either bombs or missiles. The defense conglomerate Norinco is promoting its own competitor to the Wing Loong called the Sky Saker although its production ceased.

What this rapid proliferation hasn’t made clear is the Wing Loong’s engine type, avionics suite, and armaments. When it comes to the latter available images indicate the original Wing Loong  supports two hardpoints for launching air-to-surface missiles while the Wing Loong 1E triples its armament payload. The Wing Loong 2 boasts six hardpoints and the Wing Loong 3 has eight hardpoints and is tailored for air-to-air combat; both models have an extra hardpoint in their airframe belly for pods or long-range munitions.

From 2012 until 2019 the AVIC Wing Loong managed to top export rankings for MALE combat drones. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were its largest foreign operators. “Several African countries” are cited as customers but none of these transactions have been verified but from 2020 onward serious competition emerged with the Baykar Bayraktar TB2.